A black-comic novel about a dysfunctional Oxford academic family. Jean, an archivist, married don Victor Lux, of a Jewish emigre family, when she was barely out of university herself. Like Masha in Chekhov's 'The Three Sisters' with Kuligin, at that point she believed him the cleverest man that she knew. But after nearly 20 years of marriage her pride in Victor's cleverness has given way to exasperation at his obsession with his work, his untidiness and absent-mindedness. Victor, meanwhile, is too worried about his position in the academic world (which he feels to be weakening) to pay sufficient attention to his wife and daughters, particularly when an old and hated rival turns up to take a job at his college. Meanwhile the couple's daughters - plain, studious and tormented-soul Eve and beautiful, lazy and rebellious Phoebe - are at war with each other. Eve longs for her parents' love but finds her braininess taken for granted, and her fumbling efforts to please them ignored; her feelings of failure express themselves in a violent hatred for Phoebe, who is showered with love and presents by her mother, and treated with amused admiration by her father, and whose bad behaviour tends to be regarded by Jean and Victor as 'high spirits'. Underneath her bravado, however, Phoebe too nurses terrible resentments, at being the only non-clever member of her family. Meanwhile, Victor's old rival is attempting to get a hold of both of Victor's daughters, and Jean's best friend and confidante, widowed don Helena has a secret to disclose...
Mendelson brings the claustrophobic scholarly atmosphere of Oxford beautifully to life, and produces some very convincing dialogue, and descriptions of people. I particularly liked her remark about how Victor could (and did) enact ancient Greek sea battles in the middle of the High Street, and some of the set pieces, such as the student parties. Life among the Oxford academics (all yoghurt-making wives, blue corduroy decor and family cats named Aeneas!) is amusingly dissected. However, I soon detected a very dark undercurrent under the sharp humour. Eve, the academic daughter, is a truly tormented soul, believing herself unloved, suffering for the fact that she is clever (and therefore her parents believe she doesn't need their attention), miserable at her plainness. The scenes in which she self-harms are horribly painful to read. Though we were meant to like Phoebe (I think), I felt that Mendelson rather overdid her wild badness - to me she came over as an unsympathetic spoilt brat, until the final chapter, when we suddenly began to understand her. Maybe if Mendelson had explained Phoebe's insecurities earlier, I would have found it easier to care about her.
Phoebe's unpleasantness for much of the book makes Jean's extravagant preference of her over Eve seem ridiculous and frankly rather sadistic; although we're very much meant to be on Jean's side, her cruel behaviour to her older daughter for a lot of the book makes it hard for us to care about her quite as much as I think we're meant to (at least, I found that). Mendelson tries to amend for this in the final section of the book where Jean realizes that 'I would kill for Eve', but again, it comes a little too late.
On the plus side, Mendelson deals with some of the other relationships in the book very well - Jean's early love for Victor slowly turning to a growing disillusionment, Jean's developing relationship with Helena, Helena's complicated feelings about her son. And she writes most sympathetically and with no sensationalism about lesbian love. Despite all the complicated emotions explored in the book, she brings it at the end to some sort of a resolution - at least in parts.
An intriguing and often amusing read, but rather more disturbing than perhaps the author intended. It will certainly leave you quite stirred up.
on 3 August 2003
I thoroughly enjoyed Daughters of Jerusalem, finishing it in two days. The setting is richly described: academic life in Oxford with all its anachronisms and traditions yet the erudite, learned characters in this story are rendered unable to articulate their feelings in real life. There are several frustrating conversations on the lines of:
'I mean....no, I can't...'
'But it's just....I...'
'Do you mean...?
The everyday trappings of daily life in this seat of learning - bicycles, college porters, cloisters - are not challenged, rather grudgingly accepted by the characters. I loved the sense of their terrible passions played out against this backdrop, where before them so many similar stories had surely been played out. Reading Mendelson's description of new love/lust was utterly refreshing, the madness, the sweating, the trembling expectation so easily disappointed only for hope to flare up once again. The family of Victor and Jean contains four desperately misunderstood people, seemingly unable to explain their needs or thoughts to each other, all careering towards chaos.
I would recommend this novel without hesitation. Charlotte Mendelson is a great new talent, brave and tense and aware.
On the surface, the Lux family seems the model of Oxford respectability. The father, Victor, is the archetypal academic: a benign, slightly bewildered figure who is wrapped up in his world of books, ancient civilisations and university rivalries. Jean, his wife, jumps through all the expected hoops and the two children, Eve and Phoebe, are gifted and charming respectively. However, under this facade is a seething bed of emotions waiting to be released. Victor, despite his intelligence, is unable to articulate or even recognise his own intense feelings, while Jean begins to push the boundaries of a marriage in which she would never have confessed to feeling trapped. In the contrasts between Oxford's open spaces and dreaming spires, and its cramped, claustrophobic academic pedantry, Mendelson paints a portrait of the paradox of marriage, and the difference between its outer and inner surfaces.
However, the main story concerns Eve: the rejected, self-pitying, hopelessly socially-unskilled, diligent oddball, whose jealousy for Phoebe, her mother's favourite, has crossed into the realms of hatred. At times, Eve's role in the family and Phoebe's unbelievable malevolence seem almost caricatured, but in cleverly taking Eve's point of view, Mendelson manipulates the skewed teenage perception of a world in which she is Cinderella - or rather, perhaps, the Ugly Duckling - and everyone else acts the wicked stepmother. Eve's struggle to find a place in her family and in her own self-consciousness during the troubled period of adolescence is interrupted by the arrival of what she believes to be her prince charming.
Charlotte Mendelson's erratic, unusual characters are three-dimensional, and she skillfully moves between perspectives to give at least a brief glance of the inner thoughts of many. A well-paced plot and prose which is at the same time minimalistic and yet manages to capture moments with hard, bright clarity, are fitting framework for a story about rivalry, jealousy, hatred, misery, loss, self-discovery and love.
Despite the complex issues this books deals with, Daughters of Jerusalem is unjudgemental, laying out the lives of its characters with a simplicity that leaves the reader to form their own conclusions. Charlotte Mendelson is, above all, a storyteller: if there is a message or a moral to this book it is, unexpectedly, about the unfathomable and beautiful nature of love between lovers, couples, parents and sisters: focussing more on its irrational resilience than fragility. A book which is ultimately strangely uplifting, and a compelling read throughout.
The novel is set in academic Oxford, where the male dons pursue the most obscure studies and are generally a scruffy, pedantic and absent-minded lot, while their wives or female colleagues are dowdy. One of the dons is Victor Lux: of refugee origin, now a Fellow of St James' College, whose field is ancient civilizations. He is sunk in his work and unobservant of his family, inarticulate except when he holds forth on some area of his subject. (Actually several of the other characters are inarticulate as well; frequently the dialogues are full of unfinished sentences, beating around the bush in embarrassment and/or with suppressed emotions.) Victor is insecure, and dreads the possibility that a hated former fellow-student and competitor of years ago, Raymond Snow, might be appointed to a vacant Fellowship at his college; and he is devastated when it happens. And Raymond Snow is indeed a silky and evil monster.
Victor's wife Jean, twenty years his junior, feels stifled at home and has a dreary job cataloguing the archives at St Thomas' College. She has one good friend, Helena Potter, a don at All Saints' College, whose specialism is insects - but this friendship is uncomfortable (to put it mildly) and full of problems.
The Luxes have two daughters. The elder, aged 16, is Eve, unattractive and clever (but, in her own opinion, not clever enough), and unappreciated by her parents. The younger one, Phoebe, aged 13, is prettier, unacademic, aggressively rumbustious, wilful, endlessly demanding, manipulative, malicious, extravagantly badly behaved, and yet (hard to understand) very much her indulgent mother's favourite, and bitterly and impotently resented by Eve. Whenever the sisters quarrel, their mother sides with Phoebe, and Eve is driven into paroxysms of masochism. She will escape for a while from her misery into happiness, only to be ensnared in exploitation and more misery.
Jean, Eve and Phoebe are full of dangerous secrets. Only Victor, preoccupied with his books and his agony over Raymond, hadn't a clue, until they all unravel horribly in his presence. One wonders then how the novel can end in anything but utter tragedy. Very likely for Victor, despite a belated triumph over Snow, it is: that is left hanging in the air. For Jane there is some kind of resolution, and for Eve and Phoebe the ending is quite unexpected.
It is a book full of passion and drama, its tensions emphasized by the use the Historic Present throughout. Brilliantly written, tragedy humorously but not unfeelingly described, and a real page-turner.
on 23 December 2013
I have to choose a novel for the book club I belong to, and have been looking for a while. Most books that I have read of late have been disappointing. I just want to read a book that says something to me; that isn't ludicrous, boring, inane, trite, badly-written etc. Hence, I am choosing this book. It certainly isn't as good as I'd hoped: the plot is very predictable, and the dialogue has too much of this kind of mallarkey:
" 'I - no, I'm not,'says Helena. 'Not strictly.'
'Oh...I thought...And Jeffrey's all right?'
'Yes. Sort of. Yes.' "
This 'naturalistic' approach can be annoying, when over-used. However, the book has numerous redeeming features. The prose style is appealing: poetic and never trite; engaging and interesting. I'm a sucker for books set in Oxford colleges, in academe, especially if there's something nasty in the woodshed, or pantry. The characters are believable people, (albeit they breathe the rarefied Oxford air); issues that affect all families are addressed unflinchingly. Unfortunately, the ending is a let-down. It's a whimper where I would have preferred a bang.
This novel tells the story of the Lux family; the father, Victor, "a black-haired, stooping, wolfhound of a man", his much younger wife Jean, and his teenage daughters, Eve and Phoebe. Victor is a vague but benign Oxford academic, and the family appear on the surface to be happy and conventional.
But all is not as it seems. Much of the narrative is written from the point of view of plain, brooding Eve, who harbours deep jealousy of her younger, prettier sister; Phoebe seems to her to be spoilt by her mother, and to get away with anything. Jean too is unhappy, and Phoebe, who appears so confident, has her own demons. As the narrative unfolds, the characters' various problems and dilemmas bubble to the surface, as the girls begin to confront their rivalry and their burgeoning sexuality, and Jean is compelled to make what could be a life-changing decision. Meanwhile, a bewildered Victor watches helplessly as his family life is threatened from all sides.
As in this author's other novels, the characters are beautifully drawn, and I found their story totally absorbing. There is love and loss; tension, violence and forgiveness; all of which add up to make this a most enjoyable read.
on 9 May 2014
About over half of the book was irritating - the author seemed to be wrapped up in her own self-admiration of her style, I thought. The characters were repellent apart from Eve. It did improve and I enjoyed it by the end but overall..I wouldn't read another book by this author.
on 13 June 2011
This is a compelling read about secret feelings and goings-on in leafy Oxford's academia. The setting itself reads true, as the Lux family hurtle towards crisis in often semi-comic scenarios. The centre of sympathy is the put-upon and clever Eve, in competition with her younger fourteen year old sister Phoebe who is demanding, seductively attractive and atrocious. The parents have real and imagined dramas of their own and there are a few surprises on the way for them and for the reader. Sometimes the elliptical dialogue seemed almost an affectation, but the mark of a good novel is that I also wanted to take some of the principal characters and shake them up and say - "can't you see what is going on for this other person? This level of involvement meant that I turned the pages fast towards the end and that makes for a pleasurable read.
on 9 September 2015
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, the fourth of this author's novels I have read. It's the story of the Lux family, who live in Oxford - four people whose experience of their shared family life turns out to be remarkably different. Mendelson is especially good at portraying the emotional lives of young people, the embarrassments and humiliations they have to cope with, and their perceptions of themselves and the adults they encounter. Her writing is sparky, intelligent and humorous. Reading her books makes the world seem a more remarkable, unpredictable and interesting place than we might be acustomed to think. And she engages our sympathy for her characters, even when what they are doing doesn't seem all that smart!
on 24 January 2014
If this book hadn't been a gift, I wouldn't have read it to the end. In fact, I wouldn't have read it at all, full stop, largely due to the main characters' lack of warmth or humility. I couldn't make a connection with them, and am at a loss to work out who might enjoy this novel.
Jean, academic wife through whom much of the story is told, is a rather inconsistent, easily-flustered 39-year old. Her husband, Victor, is the stereotypical, constantly distracted academic: at mealtimes he zones-out and scribbles in a notebook, completely unaware that around him his wife and two daughters are, in their different ways, unravelling. Phoebe, the younger teenage daughter is a precocious drama queen, and because Phoebe gets all the attention, Eve, the older teenage daughter, resorts to self-harming. And to say - given what transpires - that Jean's best friend, Helen, is too intense is putting it mildly.
The dust cover says, "Jean Lux, constrained academic wife and guilty mother, is waiting for excitement - and it will come from an unexpected source." Hmm, I thought, cue a lesbian affair. And I was right.
The story doesn't reach any heights until, two-thirds of the way through, when Victor's rival in academe, Raymond Snow, shows up. Raymond has recently returned from the USA and the old roué quickly sets about seducing first Eve, then Phoebe. This is sinister enough, but to compound matters, it turns out that the girls' mother, Jean, lost her virginity to the same Raymond Snow all those years ago. Jean was going out with Victor at the time but he was taking too long to get round to "doing it" so Jean "did it" with Raymond Snow. Thankfully, when Victor finds out that Snow has "had" all of the women in his life, he is able to successfully exact revenge.
At the same time as all this is going on, Jean is embarking on a lesbian affair with her best friend Helena.
Apart from the unlikeable characters, the book is peppered with inconclusive, meaningless part-sentences, such as this example, taken from page 141 -
`I...' they both say.
`Go on then.'
`No,' says Helena suspiciously. `You go on.'
`I don't want you to think...'
`I don't,' Helena interrupts. `Look, you don't need to, you know, say anything. I should ... I have to apologize. I'm sorry I haven't already. It's all a ghastly...'
`Oh!' says Jean. `Is it? I ... I though...'
Far from "brilliant and witty" as promised on the dust cover, I found this book dark and depressing. `Daughters of Jerusalem' has won two prestigious prizes so, clearly, my judgement is way off-beam.